Brown at 50
Making Brown Real
A North Carolina Family Fought Threats and Intimidation After Suing to Integrate Schools
Posted Apr 1, 2004 4:25 PM CDT
By Molly McDonough
Christine Coppedge remembers the fall night in 1966. Five cars bearing Confederate battle flags headed up the long narrow driveway toward her family’s home.
The Coppedges—Christine, husband Luther and son Harold—lived on a 20-acre tobacco and cotton farm they owned outside Louisburg, N.C.
Trouble started for the family the previous December when they took a defiant school board to court. They joined a suit to desegregate the all-white public schools in Franklin County, a rural pine-forested area in North Carolina’s Piedmont region.
It was 12 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and like many black families, the Coppedges celebrated the decision. But it wasn’t real for them until their son entered school. That’s when they became upset over the quality of their son’s educational opportunities. More than a decade after Brown, their county’s schools showed barely a change in racial composition.
That night, Christine Coppedge knew the men were coming for her family. She had been warned. And she was prepared. With her husband away finishing his Baptist seminary studies, she borrowed a semi-automatic rifle and positioned herself behind an old oak tree near her Federal-style house.
As the cars neared, she opened fire. Not surprisingly, the intruders retreated, backing up so quickly they comically bumped each other on the way out. “I wasn’t really scared,” she says. “I was mad.”
Coppedge, now 72, tells about how she developed a resolve that she repeated to those who threatened her family: “I don’t mind dying, and I don’t mind killing.” The Coppedges became the name plaintiffs in a legal battle against the school board. Their anger kept the family focused as they endured unceasing harassment, drive-by shootings, nails in their driveway, poisoned wells, murdered pets and a burning cross on their lawn.
“Our lead plaintiffs were harassed and threatened just about every day,” says Julius L. Chambers, a Charlotte lawyer who took the case. Chambers was nurturing what would become a legendary civil rights practice in his home state before becoming director-counsel in 1984 of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., the association’s litigation arm.
The Coppedges weren’t struggling alone. By 1965, a decade after Brown and Brown II, with its “all deliberate speed” mandate, hundreds of school districts were struggling to desegregate, while others were flatly rejecting it.
In many Southern school districts, Franklin County among them, the emphasis was on “deliberate,” rather than “speed.” Many schools had adopted a court-approved approach of “freedom of choice” as a way to sidestep a full push for desegregation. The idea was that students could freely choose which schools to attend regardless of race.
The notion originated in the cases after Brown II. In one of the earliest, a remand of the South Carolina case that was consolidated into Brown, U.S. District Judge John Parker interpreted the opinion as requiring only that students be given a choice of schools to attend. Brown outlawed discrimination, the judge said; it didn’t require integration. Briggs v. Elliott, 132 F. Supp. 776 (E.D.S.C. 1955).
In 1967, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the idea, but cautioned that “freedom of choice is acceptable only if the choice is free in the practical context of its exercise. If there are extraneous pressures which deprive the choice of its freedom, the school board may be required to adopt affirmative measures to counter them.” Bowman v. County School Board of Charles City County, 382 F.2d 326.
Practically speaking, freedom of choice did little to change segregated school districts. By the end of the first decade after Brown, only 2.3 percent of black students were attending majority white schools in the South, according to data collected by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project.
Franklin County in 1965 was a case study. The county had satisfied federal education authorities by adopting a freedom-of-choice plan. But there proved to be very little free choice for black students.
The proof was in the numbers. According to court documents, of 3,100 black students in Franklin County during the 1965-66 school year, 76 opted to attend one of the county’s six all-white schools in the first, second, ninth and 12th grades. Only 31 were admitted in what school officials hoped would be a gradual process.
Another group of students in the other grades requested to transfer from their black schools to white schools. None was permitted. By the end of the school year, the number of admitted students dwindled to six.
Harold Coppedge, now 54, was one of two black students to attend the formerly all-white Edward Best High School. The other, a young woman, wouldn’t last the year. But Harold managed to finish, eventually going on to pursue jobs in education, catering and entertainment after studying art education at the Elizabeth City State College, once an all-black college in northeastern North Carolina.
The dropouts, such as the girl who left Harold’s class, were frightened into leaving by a campaign of intimidation waged against the families, according to interviews, court documents and newspaper reports. Names and addresses of the black students who sought to attend white schools were printed in a local paper. Black sharecroppers living on white-owned land were threatened with the loss of their homes and jobs. And the Klan rallied, at one early point burning crosses simultaneously in 55 North Carolina counties.
Freedom of choice wasn’t proving an effective desegregation scheme elsewhere, either. In North Carolina, the statewide total of black students attending previously all-white schools was 15.4 percent at the end of the 1966-67 school year, according to case records. The percentage in Mississippi was 2.5 percent. But Franklin County had Mississippi beat, with only 1.5 percent of black students signed up to attend majority white schools in 1967.
The freedom-of-choice concept wasn’t the only thing holding back desegregation. Education authorities and politicians across the country, but especially in the South, were working to keep segregation alive or to slow integration to a snail’s pace. In 1956, Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd coined the phrase “massive resistance” in reaction to Brown, and that year 101 congressmen signed the Southern Manifesto, pledging to defy court-ordered integration by, among other means, closing schools or funding private schools for white students.
And violence, like the kind the Coppedges endured, was endemic. In depositions for the case, plaintiff Irene Arrington testified that her home was shot at, and she received telephone calls that “started around suppertime and would last until 11 o’clock. A lot of them ... asked me was I trying to get white. ... Some of them [were] telling me that something was going ‘to happen to you.’ ” Coppedge v. Franklin County Board of Education, 273 F. Supp. 289 (E.D.N.C. 1967).
Reflecting on the ordeal from the comfort of her split-level home in Raleigh, Christine Coppedge bristles with the memory of similar calls to her party line. The harassing calls didn’t end until Harold left for college and the Coppedges moved to Raleigh.
But the accusations still bother her. “All I want is equal rights,” Coppedge recalls saying at the time. “I’m not trying to be white.”
Lawyers, too, were targets. From 1966 through 1968, when Chambers was most active in school desegregation cases, the lawyer had his car and house bombed and his Charlotte office burned.
Like the Coppedges, Chambers was undeterred. “We were making some progress,” says Chambers, now 68. “We thought that if we continued, we’d be able to get some kids in school.”
The Franklin County case was first taken up by the LDF, which for decades had been piloting desegregation efforts. Founded in 1940 with Thurgood Marshall at the helm, the LDF provided legal help to poor African-Americans. The organization operated primarily through cooperating attorneys such as Chambers, whose firm handled some 40 to 50 desegregation cases, including the landmark Supreme Court case affirming busing as a desegregation option, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971).
But LDF lawyers couldn’t be everywhere. That left plaintiffs having to front money for their own suits while facing threats to their economic and physical survival. With the LDF behind him, Rev. Luther Coppedge rose to the challenge. He and his wife were financially secure, owned their land and were, like many ministerial families, already active in the NAACP, regularly transporting black voters to the polls.
So when son Harold was of high school age and lawyers needed volunteers to sue the school board, Luther Coppedge was the first to raise his hand. Preparing for the fallout, Christine Coppedge told her husband at the time, “You do the preaching; I’ll do the shooting.” By then, the LDF lawyers—including Chambers, who had assistance from Marshall’s LDF successor, Jack Greenberg in New York—were joined by Justice Department attorneys.
In most cases, Justice Department attorneys were the muscle that the plaintiffs and their lawyers sorely needed. Greenberg recalls that for decades, there was one black lawyer in the whole state of Delaware. The same went for Alabama. No white lawyers in the South would align themselves with the organization for fear they would be “economically punished,” says Greenberg, now a law professor at Columbia University in New York City. “You couldn’t really have a full-scale litigation program in a state with one lawyer,” he adds. So, when the Justice Department came in, Greenberg says, it was like having “a whole army of people who were helping you.”
Indeed, enforcement on a wide scale didn’t happen until well after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which gave the Justice Department the authority to intervene and help enforce Brown. According to the Harvard survey, within 10 years of the statute, the percentage of black students attending previously all-white schools jumped from 2.3 percent to greater than 36 percent.
THE FRANKLIN COUNTY FIGHT
Among the first Justice Department foot soldiers on the scene was Howard Fink, an antitrust lawyer on loan to the DOJ’s civil rights division. Fink, now an associate judge near Chicago, remembers that when he arrived in Franklin County, fearful lawyers kept their hotel locations under wraps, sometimes alternating hotels and trading in rental cars to avoid attacks. Fink says he would often sleep in his car, sometimes in front of a plaintiff’s house if he heard from sympathetic white residents that there might be trouble.
Fink spent much of his time scouring North Carolina, investigating the state of the schools and acts of intimidation against black families who signed their children up to attend white schools. In a document Fink wrote to prepare for litigation in Bertie County, N.C., the young lawyer describes the state of black schools from color slides he obtained from black families. While white children went to school in brick buildings with indoor plumbing, Fink says black students went to overcrowded wooden schoolhouses. “They had deteriorating foundations, one had sagging wooden steps, all had outdoor latrines in fairly poor to very poor condition, none had running water, and although the outsides of the buildings were newly painted, the grounds were in poor shape,” the document reports.
Fink also documented acts of intimidation. He remembers seeing burning crosses on lawns, bullet holes in homes and the ruins of bombed or burned buildings. “I saw decent people doing indecent things,” Fink says, adding that the Ku Klux Klan was as prevalent as Little League. Business owners throughout the county would display stickers and placards in store windows that declared, “I support the Klan.”
Fink incorporated his research into a Chronology of Intimidation, an 80-item document that eventually proved persuasive in the federal courts. But not at first.
The Franklin County case marked the Justice Department’s first attack on free choice. The DOJ lawyers argued that the method was an unconstitutional mechanism for desegregation, says Frank E. Schwelb, a Justice Department lawyer on the case, and now a judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Basically, the plaintiffs claimed that freedom of choice, combined with intimidation, meant no choice.
Early on, U.S. District Judge Algernon Butler, who would later take control of the district while presiding over the case, issued rulings siding with the school district, which argued that it had developed an approved plan and was slowly but surely desegregating the schools. Even after the Justice Department identified Franklin County as a priority case and intervened in 1966, Butler ruled that the school district had acted in good faith.
What followed was a series of orders for more freedom- of-choice periods and interim desegregation orders. Only after the orders produced little progress did the exasperated judge indicate he had had enough.
A highly regarded jurist, Butler was a “fairly conservative man,” who “gradually got sold [the idea] that freedom of choice was by name only,” Schwelb says.
In personal writings about the era, Schwelb discusses the Justice Department’s strategies in detail. “If we could show that free choice in Franklin County was fiction rather than fact, this would surely have an electric effect on desegregation throughout the South. Not only would justice be done in Franklin County, but Klansmen everywhere would be on notice that their nightriding would result in more and speedier integration, not less.”
The strategy worked. In a sweeping desegregation order in 1967, Butler concluded that “so-called ‘freedom of choice’... is an illusion.” With the opinion, Butler became one of the first federal judges to strike down a freedom- of-choice plan, a scheme that in 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court would rule to be an ineffective response to its desegregation mandate. Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430.
Butler’s opinion chronicles the history of violence related to desegregation and holds the school system accountable for failing to do more to counter community attitudes or to come up with ways to desegregate the schools by student assignment or faculty makeup.
Butler essentially wrested desegregation decision-making from the school district and laid out a comprehensive desegregation plan from student assignment and extracurricular activities to facilities management. When the school district responded by integrating the schools but segregating classes, Butler brought the parties back in and pushed for a consent decree that more effectively integrated the schools.
Despite Butler’s detailed order, the case didn’t end in 1967. In fact, much to the surprise of the Coppedge family, the litigation that bears their name is ongoing. The Justice Department counts it among 361 elementary and secondary school districts still under desegregation orders where the government is a party.
The primary arguments are more nuanced now, but the overall issues are the same. According to the latest consent order filed June 17, 2003, there have been seven desegregation orders since the Franklin County dispute first hit the courts in December 1965. The initial orders mainly concentrated on eliminating racial division and eventually led to orders regarding pupil-teacher ratios, pupil-classroom ratios and money spent per student.
Following a relatively long period of inactivity, the case resurfaced in the early 1990s when the Franklin County schools merged with a previously separate system in the town of Franklinton. The parties implemented remedial plans to address desegregation after the merger. Another period of relative calm followed. Then in late 1999, Senior U.S. District Judge James C. Fox took an interest in the case and assembled the parties for a status conference. Judge Fox declined to be interviewed about the ongoing litigation. But attorneys involved say the judge ordered lawyers for the school district to make a motion for unitary status, which if granted would release the district from the control of the federal courts.
School district attorney John Davis of Raleigh, whose father, Charles, was one of the original school board lawyers on the case, complied with the judge’s order and filed the motion to dismiss.
Yet despite what appeared to be a readiness to release the district from court oversight, Judge Fox reviewed the records and decided that the schools were not ready to stand on their own. He ruled that the district had achieved integration with regard to transportation, extracurricular activities, facilities, transfers and faculty assignment. But he decided on June 25, 2002, that there was more to be done.
Of particular concern were 2002 statistics indicating that black students are woefully underrepresented in honors programs and overly represented in discipline and special education categories. At Bunn High School, the county’s largest high school, only three black students—4.84 percent—of about 252 total black students were enrolled in honors classes, according to statistics furnished by plaintiffs’ lawyers. And while black children make up about a third of that school’s population, nearly 56 percent of the children identified as learning disabled were black. These disparities are apparent throughout the district and all the way down through the elementary schools.
Charlotte lawyer Corie D. Pauling and Chapel Hill lawyer William Simpson Jr. now oversee the Coppedge case for Chambers’ law firm, Ferguson Stein Chambers. They are working with the Justice Department and the school district to achieve greater desegregation.
The plaintiffs’ complaints have evolved from basic desegregation by numbers to attention to the important details of quality of education, learning and discipline. There is no question that there are racial disparities, Pauling and Simpson say. But unlike the early litigation in Franklin County, the parties are tackling these issues in a more unified fashion.
“The school board believes in the concept of desegregation,” Simpson says. “Our goal is to move it up on the list of priorities.”
The lawyers are careful to point out that the length of the case is not an indication of failure. “You can look at the division that existed in Louisburg before and the hostility that existed and how that hostility has been eliminated,” Chambers says. “All this shows that people can live together and that communities can grow and prosper.”
Although the Coppedges were stunned to learn the case is ongoing, they were unified in saying that it was worth the turmoil and heartache.
Christine Coppedge says she longed for integrated schools back when she was in grade school. She remembers walking a long way to attend class while white children rode comfortably in buses to schools that were closer and better equipped. Some of the children would throw cans at her and pelt her with spit wads.
She vowed back then that her children would experience better, that they would taste equality. Yet it would be years before she was in a position to do anything about it. Sitting at her dining room table reminiscing, she recalls the simple goal that got it all started. “All we wanted was for our son to have a quality, equal education.”
“All of us gave it all we had,” says Luther Coppedge, now 77 years old.
His wife agrees: “I would do it again.”